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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-06-04 11:00 pm

10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights by Ryu Mitsuse

Mitsuse, Ryu. 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights. 1967. Translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander, Haikasoru, 2011. eBook.

10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights is a piece of late 1960s Japanese sci-fi that the Internet tells me is kind of a big deal. I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. I first encountered in on Strange Horizons, where it was the topic of one of their book review roundtables.

The elevator pitch of "Christ Versus Mecha-Buddha. In Space!" is what immediately drew my attention, but I was also drawn by the description of it as blending science-fiction and religious/mythical/historical fiction. I soon learned that the elevator pitch was both completely accurate and completely false.

Make no mistake: 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights is a bleak, bleak book. And yet its bleakness and terror strike at me in a way I feel moved to visit and revisit, much as I regularly rewatch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I generally try to avoid reread reviews on this blog, but I have a lot of things to talk about, so I shall.

10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights has an core cast of larger-than-life figures: Prince Siddartha (yes, that Prince Siddartha), Jesus Christ, Plato. They are rendered in this novel as deeply human, united in their yearning to understand the world around them -- not just its material essence, but its true meaning and nature. In a world that seems full of cruelty and devoid of reason, their desire is understandable. The tragedy is that the gods they turn to for answers are remote and angry; not just indifferent, but full of malice. Plato may seem like an odd addition to this case of religious figures, but I think Plato is meant to represent a secular yearning for knowledge. His Allegory of the Cave isn't mentioned explicitly, but it's a core part of his philosophy and strongly associated with him. I can't believe that that wasn't lurking in the background of how and why Mitsuse chose him as part of his cast.

And then there's Asura. She is, by far, the most tragic of the characters, the ruthless driving heart. Her desperation and need to know and fight the forces that had destroyed her world. Her position as the adversary, locked in endless battle. In some ways her characterization matches recent pop culture depictions of Lucifer as not that bad after all, the reframing of the divine enemy as a hero by reframing the divine as villainous.

The choice to render Asura a teenage girl is a strange one now; I can't imagine how strange it would have been in the 1960s. She is the keen one, the intelligent one, the terrifying and ferocious warrior. She's also the oldest and most seasoned, the one with the greatest sense of what has been lost and what there is left to lose. I don't think Mitsuse's intent was the simple visual irony, but I think this juxtaposition of visual and narrative makes Asura a timeless figure within the narrative. Jesus and Siddartha and Plato were all grounded in the material and mortal world. Not so with Asura. She is timeless and ageless; where Siddartha, Jesus, and Orionae are worn out, she is full of vigor and drive. Asura has a vitality -- no wonder she outlives the others.

But oh, is she a tragedy. The ending is truly sad. It's ambivalence, the emptiness, the knowledge that the foe she'd sought has already won. The sheer prospect of her quest's continuation and knowing she'll have to continue it a lone. What does she have left to fight for? How can she do anything other than fight?

Let me touch on the SF-nal bits now. Nominally, this book falls under the heading of science-fiction, and Mitsuse makes use of genre tropes to mine the terror of deep time, the vast misery of grinding destruction that spans millennia. The sublime horror of thousands of years of hibernation. The existence of cyborgs and advanced tech seem like a cruel joke: no matter how fancy our toys, we cannot escape our essential nature. And for humans, that essential nature is a yearning for understanding that is easily manipulated, what seems to be a endless march toward self-annihilation. The fact that the main cast becomes cyborgs in their quest is a sign of the cost of their struggle. These enhancements, made mostly for destruction, were imposed by a greater power out of their control; in becoming more than human, they become closer to their adversaries' equals, and in so doing leave the humans and mortals they fight for further behind.

This is not a happy book.

It is also, I think, a particularly timely one. Asura, Siddartha, and Orionae struggle against a world that is guided by a seemingly unstoppable force of mind-numbing malice. Their ally is as high-handed as their enemy, while also being far less effective. And yet, the three of them fight on. They push themselves to the brink, fight, scream, and risk everything in their need to assert their right to exist in freedom and safety. I don't think you have to look far in the US to see how this might feel analogous to the current political situation, where every right and protection is under government assault.

Asura closes out the novel alone, yearning for happier times, knowing that there is nothing left for her but to keep moving in a universe that seems hopelessly empty and cruel. She's already rejected collaborating with the enemy. What other option does she have?

What indeed.

Contrasting all this is Mitsuse's lush and beautiful descriptions of the natural and material world, of sensations seen and felt. Every description is beautiful. Every sky, ever disintegrating remnant of a long-dead civilization. The immediacy and groundedness of his prose contrasts the incomprehensible and abstract notions of time, space, and technology that form the more sf-nal elements, a reminder that -- even though all these characters constantly look outward for truth and understanding -- there is much in the real world that deserves our attention and respect as well.

10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights is a bleak book with a terrible despair at its heart. But it's also a beautiful book, many small stories woven together in lovely vignettes that ground its grand, philosophical struggles. It is a question that lingers, in hope of an answer.


Seeing as this book is difficult to grapple with, I'm linking the roundtable that inspired me to pick it up in the first place. There is entirely too much hand-wringing over what genre it fits in, but the various takes and insights are interesting and helpful as a starting place for grappling with the novel. It's pretty milquetoast on the topic of religion, which, that seems strange considering three of four main characters are explicitly religious figures.

I can't speak to Mitsuse's beliefs, but it seems pretty clear to me that the novel is, at the very least, deeply skeptical about religion. The Atlanteans' fictional religion is explicitly described as a means created by the powerful for manipulating and controlling the populace. Why should Christianity and/or Buddhism be any different? Religion in this book is an ideological tool. It preys upon an earnest yearning to make sense of a capricious, opaque world in order to manipulate and control. Religion (and secular philosophy, as embodied by Plato/Orionae) can offer answers -- but, Mitsuse seems to ask, where are those answers coming from? What do the providers of these answers have to gain? Can they be trusted?

The answer, in 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights, is terribly, sorrowfully, "no."